Family Travel Survival Guide: San Diego, CA

A So Cal native provides a guide to the best the city has to offer families.
By Debbie K. Hardin
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Sunset on the San Diego skyline
SKY BLUE SKY: San Diego at sunset (Jeremy Woodhouse/Photodisc/Getty)

With dozens of white-sand beaches, near-perfect year round weather, and a handful of world-class zoos, aquariums, and theme parks, San Diego, California, is a sure bet for a fun-filled family vacation. Although there is no shortage of activities for children, there's plenty for adults to enjoy as well—especially the revitalized downtown district, which in the past decade has transformed into one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan city centers in the country.

Lay of the LandSan Diego is big—larger than some New England states (more than 4,200 square miles), comprising a sprawling network of neighborhoods connected via mega-freeways. Public transportation (easy to use and fun via the bright red San Diego Trolley) and foot power will get you around downtown, but it's nearly impossible to navigate the rest of the far-flung city without a car. The good news is that the freeway system is easy to understand, routes are well marked, and exits are announced with plenty of warning. The bad news is that traffic often chokes the major thoroughfares. Visitors will have fewer headaches if they allow extra travel time and avoid rush hours; the worst of the traffic on weekdays is heading south and west in the morning and north and east in the evening. On weekends, expect the morning flow to move westward, toward the beaches, and the evening flow to move southward, toward downtown.

Neighborhoods
Most tourist attractions are downtown and in the beach communities that line the coast. The heart of San Diego is the revitalized Gaslamp Quarter, 16 blocks of upscale restaurants, shopping, and boutique hotels housed in beautifully restored Victorian structures. Also downtown is the artsy East Village; the largely rebuilt Harbor District overlooking the San Diego Bay; and Little Italy, another recently revamped district in the northernmost section of downtown. Across the bay is Coronado, an isthmus connected to the city by the graceful Coronado Bay Bridge. The Uptown District is a few miles north of downtown and overflows with ethnic eateries, comfort-food diners, and kitschy shopping.

Imagine the coastline communities of San Diego like a string of beads running northward, starting with iconoclastic Ocean Beach; youth-centric Mission Beach—and just inland, peaceful Mission Bay; Pacific Beach, heady with laid-back bars and bikini shops; La Jolla, a tony community with multimillion-dollar homes and a vibrant cultural scene; upscale Del Mar (home to the famous Del Mar Racetrack); Encinitas, a trendy surfing town; and Carlsbad, a quaint European-style village and site of Legoland.


Published: 11 Sep 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in San Diego

$149-$239
Average/night*
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#3
The Westgate Hotel
$396
Average/night*
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#4
Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina

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